I once told someone that I collect bars. It felt cringey as I heard it leave my lips, but now, after having just helped a friend move, after a handful of trips up stairs lugging his boxes of books and LPs, I’m pretty pleased with my intangible (read: weightless) collection.
There’s a list (no shit there’s a list, we live in a world organized by and fed to us by lists) of the Fifty Best Bars in the World, published each year. And while I’m generally off-put by these clickbaity sales funnels, this one, as someone who now writes a column on cocktails, well, this was my kind of list.
While many of these ‘best’ lists sell a costly dream (best travel destination, best restaurant), you can experience most bars on the list for usually less than twenty dollars. And that’s truly the magic of the bar experience. In a world that’s more and more separated by means and entitlement, one can still have a list-ranking experience regardless of tax bracket.
A little too idealistic? Well, I’ve been drinking, it fills me with hope…
This story takes us to the tragically shuttered Bar at NoMad in NYC. I believe NoMad peaked at number four on the aforementioned list. We had just come in out of the rain, having just wolfed down some Papaya dogs. The place is packed, standing room only. We manage to get a spot on the rail, just behind a couple discussing their investment portfolio; the woman has a fur coat draped on her chair, the man in a suit, by all looks of it, bespoke. I’m wearing my ‘SoundCloud rapper’ floral hoodie and a pair of Saucony’s, wet from the December rain.
We hit it off with our server, Alejandra, who runs the floor tonight. She’s an expert, especially considering our dangerously-close-to-obnoxious orders. Something astringent. Something red and bitter, no Campari. Our first round comes and blows our minds. The lady with the fur turns and asks if we want her seat. The Universe is smiling at us.
Though the back bar is incredible, the best part of getting a seat at the table is the chance to talk to your bartender. This is where we meet Jack. He’s thoroughly weeded (it is the holiday season), but he doesn’t show it, busily shaking, stirring, chatting. It’s witnessing a master craftsman at work; expert level. I ask what he drinks at home. His answer: Miller High Life. A shot of Fernet. I like Jack.
He’s happy to share recipes, though I’ll be damned if I know half the ingredients. Every other drink he serves is eggnog. I mention I’ve never seen it outside of the half-gallon jugs in the grocery store. He sneakily puts one together and splits it with us, ‘for science.’ It’s surprising and glorious. Light, not too sweet. Expert level.
But, back to the task at hand.
Jack didn’t ask me for my final drink order. He just put it in front of me. A simple rocks glass with a lemon twist. In it, a drink that would change what I thought I knew about cocktails.
The Bitter Giuseppe
2 ounces Cynar
1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth
¼ ounce lemon juice, plus lemon twist for garnish
6 dashes orange bitters, preferably Regans’
From Stephen Cole, Violet Hour, Chicago
Most cocktails adhere to the base-plus-modifiers formula. Your base is usually a recognizable spirit; white rum for a daiquiri, bourbon for a manhattan. Modifiers can run the gamut, but your usual suspects are fruit juices, fortified wines, sweeteners, bitters, etc. For the previous examples, a daiquiri gets simple syrup and lime juice, and the manhattan, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters.
Now let’s take it a step further. We can split or switch up our base or our modifiers to come up with new drinks. Split the lime juice with grapefruit and sub Maraschino liqueur for simple and you get a Hemingway daiquiri. Split your red vermouth with Cynar and your Manhattan becomes a Little Italy.
Here’s where things get fun: the Bitter Giuseppe is all modifiers.
Cynar is an amaro, notorious for being made from artichokes. But I’ll be damned if I taste any sort of artichoke in it. It’s honey-sweet, but bitter, a little mentholated. Like a Ricola, that makes talking to people easier. Its logo is unmistakable, a large artichoke done in that familiar European-liquor company poster style.
So, add to that modifier some red vermouth. Here, the recipe calls out Carpano Antica, a big, full-bodied sweet vermouth. Lots of stone fruit and vanilla. Another classy-as-hell bottle, looking like something that would be found in a Roman ruin.
Then, another rule-breaking twist: a quarter ounce of lemon juice. Now, I’m of the belief that if a drink or dish doesn’t pop, then some acid will usually liven it up. That’s certainly the case here, the lemon brightens up this dark drink, but it also cuts the sweetness. The rule breaking part of this is that if a drink has any kind of juice in it, you shake it. But the Bitter Giuseppe is stirred. Why? Well, this is still a spirit-forward drink, and that genre of cocktail gets stirred. Stirring preserves that velvety feeling but also gives you better control of dilution.
This leads to my final points on this drink. The Bitter Giuseppe starts to make more sense if you consider it a Cynar Manhattan. The Manhattan is a 2:1 spec plus bitters, which is a variation of the Martini base recipe (if you buy the Cocktail Codex’s thesis that there are only six cocktails). What this drink did for me was remind me that rules are important but more important is a good drink. It opened up a world of rule-breaking and outside-the-box-thinking. It introduced me to the enormous world of Amari, a catch-all term for any herbal liqueur.
Now, I get it. A bottle of Cynar runs like thirty bucks, not to mention, it’s not always easy to find. But, if you can get one (and have a half-decent bottle collection), you give yourself a lot of options for some really delicious bittersweet drinks. The Little Italy, the Too Soon, hell, even a Cynar and Coke is awesome. And if that’s not enough convincing, then at least channel the spirit of the drink and break some rules. Reverse Manhattan?
Now, what does this thing taste like? Well, my ideal drink is probably a liver-safe version of Dimetapp, store-brand Robitussin, or other dextromethorphan-rich syrup that doesn’t induce what Wikipedia tells me that kids these days call ‘robo-tripping.’ If you’re still reading, you owe yourself a Bitter Giuseppe. The drink is, well, bitter, yes. But also has a nice dark sweetness to it that’s cut by that lemon juice and the oils from the lemon peel. It’s also low ABV, so won’t prematurely ruin your night (or wreck your palate).
Tasting notes? Well, my former bar manager told me that when describing a drink to customers, just say what you taste. I’m not a trained expert, so we’re operating squarely in the realm of subjectivity. It tastes like honey, alpine herbs, burnt sugars.
It tastes like progress in the face of the status quo.
It tastes like, to channel Virgil Abloh, a place where everyone has a seat at the table.
Spirit Wave Mix #1: Late Night Alpine Trip
by Brad Rose
Amelia Courthouse – Becker
Emily Reo – Car
Jan Steele & Janet Sherbourne – Temporary Farewell
Tommaso Moretti – Italiano in America
Catherine Sikora – The Edge of Truth
Nana Vasconcelos – Toshiro
Spires That In the Sunset Rise – Geomantra
Karima Walker – Window II
Tomeka Reid Quartet – Woodlawn
Vangelis – Rachael’s Song
Roger Robinson and the Black Space Quartet – You Know
Laila Sakini – Butterflies
Meg Baird – The Waltze Of The Tennis Players
Steve Gunn – Over the Hill